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Point Animates Bolts in Victory over Canes

January 11, 2019, 12:51 PM ET [6 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
To the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Lightning are a bully. They batter and thump weaker opponents into submission. The best way to handle a bully is not to cower when faced with confrontation, but to put up resistance. The Hurricanes might not be the most talented squad in the NHL, but in last night’s 3-1 loss to the Lightning, they did not play timid.

Carolina’s defensemen challenged the Lightning forwards on the rush, often disrupting their efforts to create separation. Emboldening the Hurricanes defensemen was the strategy of always having at least one Carolina forward back who could cover their defenseman underneath should the strong-side defenseman lose the one-on-one challenge. Or, if the Hurricanes had a numbers advantage, the Carolina forward and strong-side defenseman could converge on the Lightning puck-carrier and squeeze him into relinquishing the puck.

Some of it was structure. The Hurricanes were never going to put themselves in danger of conceding an odd-man rush. And they eliminated passing lanes in transition by always having equal or more skaters back than the Lightning. They also took away shooting lanes on the cycle by creating layers of bodies in the middle of the ice. This proved true even at four-on-four, and a turnover by Steven Stamkos forced Andre Vasilevskiy into a tough save. Carolina’s unyielding pressure gave them another avenue for offense through counterattacks.

The funny thing is, like a muscle that is important to exercise but has not be utilized in awhile, it was a healthy experience for Tampa Bay. Come playoff time, the best players on all teams get more ice time. Gaps shrink. There are less opportunities on the rush, and a contender needs not just to forecheck, but also to create offense off the cycle against a speedy and well-structured defensive coverage.

The Lightning are inclined to pass up good opportunities in the pursuit of great chances. Against Carolina, and teams that put in the effort to eliminate Tampa Bay’s time and space, it is paramount that the Lightning simplify. Sometimes a shot is just a gateway to a better scoring opportunity, and it allows the Lightning to control territorial possession through their unassailable ability to retrieve. This was especially pertinent last night because the Hurricanes used their quickness to hem the Lightning in their own end, and Tampa Bay’s struggles to exit their own end also sapped their potency on the rush.

But just like how the same word can have a different meaning in different cultures, simplifying has a different resonance with different hockey lines. For the Brayden Point line, simplifying means removing the lateral pass right before the entry and in the neutral zone, and not forcing east-west passes in the offensive zone. Against slower opponents, the Point line’s passing is their lever for offense. Against stingy defenses, skating and puck support are their best tool.

The best example came in the third period with just over five minutes left. Even though it did not result in a goal, the Point line succeeded in a way that suits their talents. They orbited the zone and interchanged with their defensemen. Their speed forced Carolina to commit three turnovers and the Lightning would generate three shot attempts. It wasn’t quick strike. It was about puck support and retrieval, and using speed to open up passing lanes and force giveaways. The Hurricanes were in their own end for nearly a minute, and would no doubt have surrendered a goal were it not for some timely saves.

Aside from Alex Killorn, the leaders in Scoring Chances at 5v5 were all members of the Kucherov-Point-Johnson line. How they performed last night is an important touchstone for how the Lightning will fare when they face a tight-checking opponent who forces Tampa Bay to forecheck and cycle to beat them.

Even though the Lightning scored two of their goals on the power play and one goal with an empty net, they deserve credit for their resilience. It was telling that, after the Point breakaway goal was overturned due to Tyler Johnson being offsides by a smidge, they followed the next shift with Point’s excellent saucer pass to Kucherov, which forced a stellar Petr Mrazek save. And, after that, Adam Erne submitted a nice attempt on a wrap-around. Against a team that pressures well and puts such an impetus on defensive effort, achieving victory is about persistence and seizing opportunity. The Lightning’s mettle is not to be underestimated.
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